Clay's Ark

Clay's Ark

by Octavia E. Butler

A world being born in the Californian desert.They discover Earth has been invaded by an alien microorganism.

For the babies born in the colony are clearly, undeniably, not human...

  • Series: Patternmaster
  • Language: English
  • Category: Science Fiction
  • Rating: 3.83
  • Pages: 213
  • Publish Date: December 1996 by Warner Books
  • Isbn10: 0446603708
  • Isbn13: 9780446603706

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However, I did not dislike this book because of this. Clay's Ark carries the similar theme of a community of humans, mutated both physically and psychologically, who must fight against outward and inward forces to maintain their humanity -- a theme that dominates just about every book I've read from this author.

What makes this book stand out is its use of the story as a doorway to larger themes of what it means to be human and to be part of a community. For the subset of humans who survive the infection, the alien invaders act symbiotically to change the host in certain ways to enhance their survival and the hosts. The others (of which I have read one) deal in various ways with alien-modified humans trying to take over Earth.

Clay's Ark: An alien disease transforms a portion of humanity Originally published at Fantasy Literature Clays Ark (1984) was written last in Octavia Butlers 4-book PATTERNIST series, but comes third in chronology. The past story arc is centered on an astronaut named Eli, the only survivor of a spaceship called Clays Ark that went on an exploratory mission to Proxima Centauri. Infected men also feel intense aggression towards other males, which leads to a lions pride type social structure, with the strongest males taking as many females as possible and fighting off competing males. The story wastes no time in throwing them into trouble, as their car is stopped by two men who force them at gunpoint to return with them to a remote enclave in the desert. As the story progresses, we learn that this community is led by former astronaut Eli and consists of people infected by the sinister alien microbe brought back from Proxima Centauri. We have no choice but to go along with the difficult decisions the characters face in whether to submit to an alien virus that will transform them. Butler seems fixated on the idea of humans being transformed into something alien, both more and less than human.

Both novels concern a sort of new development for humanity -- Mind of My Mind has people with psychic abilities who are gaining power by working as a group, and Clay's Ark has an isolated set of people infected by an alien disease which changes them completely. More than half of Clay's Ark is told from the perspective of three people who are kidnapped by the disease carriers. The disease, like a souped-up Selfish Gene, changes its victims' behavior and thoughts, driving them to infect other people so that the disease can survive and spread. Clay's Ark offers much to feed curiosity about a humanity changed by the disease, but even the confirmed carriers who are driven to spread it -- even when actually acknowledging, "We are the future" -- do so with a sense of grim inevitability instead of hope. The sexual spread of the disease in Clay's Ark compares with the development of populations with psi abilities in Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind.

Butler published Patternmaster in 1974, and then spent the next eight years filling in the history of the far-future world she had created.

I previously read Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, and those two books were directly related, with a few of the same characters 200 years down the road. Just as with the first two Patternist stories I read, Clay's Ark incorporates many of the same themes: gender, race, evolution, survival, breeding programs, and morality. As I've come to expect, Butler never gives an easy answer to any of these ideas, and instead poses situations in which morality seems like a luxury in the face of survival.

The book still suffers from some explain-y, hand-wavy writing, which is unfortunate, and possibly attributable to the fact that Butler wrote Clay's Ark as a kind of background postscript to the Patternist series.

This book came out in 1984 and it is interesting to note how Butler's narrative includes things like what we know today as being a "GPS" system!